Skip to main content Skip to footer

"Knowledge work" versus "Knowledge management"

Margot Howard

Businesses need an advantage to get ahead in highly competitive marketplaces. Putting their collective knowledge to work is essential when striving to do this. The challenge is how to go about efficiently accessing all this knowledge to put it to work.

iManage sought to gain a deeper understanding of knowledge work and their research found:

  • 68% of survey respondents said the information in digital documents and files is the most important thing to their business.
  • 28% of survey respondents said that most or all of their documents are scattered and siloed across multiple systems.
  • 30% of respondents said that documents reach their organization via five or more channels.

This information overload creates barriers to effective knowledge work that can only be solved by efficient knowledge management. Knowledge work and knowledge management are closely intertwined and interdependent. Plus, each reinforces the other. So, how do we distinguish them from one another to get the desired competitive edge?

Why is it important to differentiate the two? 

To benefit from the advantage that knowledge work gives businesses, we need first to understand what knowledge work is. For knowledge work to make an impact, we must understand what it looks like, how it provides businesses with a competitive edge, and what makes it different from traditional knowledge management.

What is knowledge work? 

Non‐routine problem‐solving is what makes knowledge work different from other forms of work. It also helps build trust between the knowledge worker and the client or business they represent. Generic advice can be seen as a sign that an organization or consultancy is 'rinse and repeating' for profit. These are not the type of 'trusted advsiors' you want at your side in high risk/stress situations. This type of problem‐solving involves an individual, not a machine, interpreting information through the lens of context to understand these five aspects:

  1. What information is relevant to a situation.
  2. How relevant information should be applied.
  3. What the unintended consequences could be.
  4. What risks are involved.
  5. Who the other key stakeholders are.

This process draws on substantial accumulated experience and expertise along with critical analysis and communication skills to interpret documented processes and apply them. So, knowledge is the by-product of data and information when appropriately used.

How knowledge work differs from knowledge management

The iManage study highlighted three key differences between knowledge work and knowledge management that clarify the role knowledge work plays:

  1. Knowledge management and information management professionals produce knowledge and starting points for knowledge workers to pick up. Their skill is in creating knowledge and maintaining consistency in knowledge starting points, such as knowhow/precedents/templates/proformas/how-to-do/templated checklists, etc. After the knowledge has been managed, the knowledge worker picks up the prepared work to generate customers' actionable outcomes.
  2. Effective knowledge management goes beyond organizing information. It codifies information contained in documents that refine and create standardized and repeatable processes, in turn, reducing the time required to gather knowledge and increase the speed of solution implementation undertaken by skilled knowledge workers, such as lawyers.
  3. With a foundation of organized knowledge work, the knowledge worker applies context and best practices to interpreting data while considering the organization's collective knowledge/experience and the industry's prevailing winds – completing tasks, delivering measurable impact, and creating value.

Actionable outcomes created by knowledge workers include contracts, purchase agreements, claims, architectural plans, deeds, employee agreements, leases, loan agreements, compliance documentation, technical and functional specifications, patent and trademark documents, and financial documentation.

Moreover, not all knowledge work ends in a legal or professional "enshrining" document. A significant output of knowledge work is advice, in the form of an email (Increasingly, a shared update on Microsoft Teams or a message on Whatsapp, underlying the critical need to capture updates formally into a matter), or a memo, an action plan or a "risk rating". These formalize the actions a consultant or lawyer gives back to a question from a client or business.

Who are knowledge workers? 

People who think for a living are knowledge workers, and their primary asset is knowledge. Historically, researchers, architects, engineers, lawyers, financial advisors, and editors were known as knowledge workers. But those not functioning in these types of roles may still be highly engaged in knowledge work.

Although knowledge managers work with knowledge, they are not the same as knowledge workers. The iManage study revealed some essential roles fulfilled by knowledge workers:

  • Providing context to help cut through overwhelming amounts of information and streamline tasks or research.
  • Passing on insights to help solve problems and facilitate critical thinking or decision‐making for other employees.
  • Tackling non‐routine problem‐solving to simplify progress, anticipate risks, and prioritize solutions.

Knowledge workers help increase employee productivity by highlighting the correct information for success. So, facilitating knowledge work impacts the entire business while giving it an advantage.

Why is knowledge work so important? 

Although some participants in the survey found it difficult to define knowledge work, they agreed on its importance:

  • 73% of respondents believe it is key to business success.
  • 74% believe it will be even more important to business in a post‐COVID‐19 world.
  • 95% indicated some level of agreement that optimizing the resources, processes, and tools used to support knowledge work will be essential to helping organizations reach their goals.

The survey participants shared the following top organization goals for their business:

  1. Improve employee productivity and collaboration.
  2. Better manage risks such as cybersecurity, privacy, and systems reliability.
  3. Reduce costs through operational efficiencies.
  4. Become more agile/increase speed‐to‐market.
  5. Increase competitive differentiation.

Based on survey data and qualitative interviews, the fundamental role knowledge work plays in meeting these organizational goals is evident. So, it is essential to enable your knowledge workers to unlock your competitive edge in the marketplace. Download the Making Knowledge WorkTM report to learn how to get your edge.

About the author

Margot Howard

Margot Howard writes content that attracts, educates and converts for B2B software and service companies.